Saturday, October 19, 2019

Tales in the Cathedral: Storytelling in Aachen

I already blogged about this year's FEST conference, but I still owed a report from the amazing storytelling event that followed after. I always love it when a gathering of international storytellers is followed by a festival, and this time Regina Sommer and the Haus der Märchen und Geschichten organized a truly special treat: We told stories inside the Aachen Cathedral at night!

We visited the cathedral during the conference that was organized by three different countries. It was my first time seeing it in person, and I was absolutely stunned by how beautiful it is. When we returned for the storytelling event (after a very friendly dinner), I could barely believe that this was going to be our venue for the night. We got a chapel for a green room (best green room ever, see the photo on the right), and they even opened the sacristy for us so that we could use the bathroom... (talk about being behind the scenes). The pre-event mood was cheerful, friendly, and filled with awe, underscored with Davide Bardi tuning his guitar in the chapel.


We were in excellent hands to help us explore: A group of young guides, trained by art historian Wirtz Ágnes (incidentally also the founder of the Világszép Foundation, the NGO I work for) when they were children, returned for the evening to offer special tours to visitors, telling us about the history and secrets of the cathedral. We got to see Charlemagne's throne built from stone slabs brought from Jerusalem, and also his golden sarcophagus. While we were on stage, the latter was visible behind us, and if we looked up over the audience, we could see the empty throne facing us from the first floor gallery. It was thrilling to imagine that someone that famous was listening to our stories... along with about three hundred people in the audience, who filled up all the seats. We had a full house... or rather, a full cathedral.

Storytellers were invited to represent carious cultures and traditions that had a connection to Charlemagne, the cathedral, the school he founded there, and the Carolingian renaissance era. For example, I was there because the cathedral has a Hungarian chapel, built in the 14th century; it has been an important place of pilgrimage ever since. Everyone told one story, and in-between performances we got to hear enchanting organ and saxophone music that filled the entire space, and transported us through time and space. The story I brought was a Hungarian legend from the time of the Mongolian invasion - it tells about how refugees were helped across the Danube by Fairy Queen Tündér Ilona, and the magician Göncöl táltos, who gave up their own powers for 777 years for them. This story holds a special significance this year, because the Mongolian invasion ended 777 years ago. I could hear the audience gasp when I told them that. It was an unforgettable moment. I was a little worried before for bringing such a pagan story into a cathedral, but since the event was opened by George Macpherson doing an ancient Celtic invocation, we both agreed that we would be fine. The Dom handled our stories well.

The other performances were all captivating, and although I could not follow the ones in German very well, I still enjoyed them. Davide Bardi and Paola Balbi brought us their incredible telling of Jesus' death and return from the points of view of Mary Magdalene and Peter. Michaela Sauber told us about Parsifal, Nuala Hayes brought us the Children of Lir, Gidon Horowitz the legend of the first temple in Jerusalem, Sam Cannarozzi legends of alchemy, Raymond den Boestert a tale of Till Uilenspiegel, and Abbi Patrix a creation myth from Africa about the spirit of creativity. Wirtz Ágnes and the young guides told us a story about Aachen together.

The whole evening was an amazing experience that connected people across time, space, and cultures, and I was incredibly honored to be a part of it. I wondered if the people building the Hungarian chapel centuries ago would have ever thought one day a Hungarian storyteller would visit, and talk about magicians and fairies under the arches...

Monday, October 14, 2019

Roosters, dogs, tortoises (Following folktales around the world 126. - São Tomé and Príncipe)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!



Sadly, once again I ran into a country where I could not get a folktale collection from. I searched for stories on the Internet, and came up with a few anyway (it would have been a lot easier if I read Portuguese...):

Why dogs don't talk
A short tale about a dog who helped its owner carry a burden home, but asked him not to tell anyone that the dog could talk. The owner's wife, however, managed to coax the secret out of her husband, and the dog got so offended that it stopped talking for good.
(I found this story in other versions as well)

The clever tortoise
Tortoise won the king's daughter in marriage by winning a bet, proving that chickens are never not hungry.

The singing roosters
Story says that the island of São Tomé used to be inhabited by roosters that crowed happily all day. Some people liked this, some tolerated it, but some were annoyed and eventually threatened the roosters with war if they did not leave. The roosters made the sensible choice, and with the leadership of a black rooster they moved somewhere else.
(This is also a popular tale, I found it on several sites)

I also found a reference to a Tortoise and the Hare tale, noting that Tortoise the resident trickster of the islands.

The tortoise and the dream
Tortoise claims that he can guess anyone's dream, so the Emperor puts him to the test. Tortoise uses colorful feathers to disguise himself as a bird, and spies on the ruler who talks about his dream about a breadfruit. (I have seen this tale with Anansi as well).

The legend of King Amador
Historical legend about the slave revolt in 1595 led by a man named Amador. The Portuguese colonizers beat down the revolt a year later and executed the king, but he became a legendary national hero and a symbol of independence.

Where to next?
Angola!

Monday, October 7, 2019

Courage against cruelty (Following folktales around the world 125. - Equatorial Guinea)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Leyendas ​y cuentos bujebas
de la Guinea Española
Arcadio de Larrea Palacin, Carlos Gonzalez Echegaray
Instituto de Estudios Africanos, 1955.

The 26 tales in the book were collected in 1952 (before the independence of the country) from members of the Bujeba (Kwasio) people, most of all a woman named Carmen Nsié. The introduction talks about the collection and translation process, the Bujeba storytelling tradition, and the indigenous way of life as portrayed in the folktales. The first chapter organizes all characters from the stories, listing information about them from the text, which is an interesting addition to a folktale collection, but not very useful up front until one has actually read the stories. Another smaller chapter listed other West African collections, and their comparisons to the tales in this book. The second half of the volume contains all the stories in Spanish mirror translation with the original Bujeba text.

Highlights

Pic from here
I loved the story of the Rescue of Miánlumba, in which a mother protected her infant daughter with a machete from a father who would only let male children live. The girl was cast into the river, and found and raised by another woman with great care. Eventually news of her reached the birth mother, who thanked the foster-mother for her help; from that day on "the girl had two mothers", the tale concludes. Violence was similarly judged in the story about The cruelty of Ntung, a brother who tortured his sister until their aunt showed up from the Land of Dwarves (where she'd married), took the girl with her, and healed her. She later showed up to tell the father and brother that the girl was better off living with her - and she did. In a third story, a girl named Yanga wandered into the house of a man-eating monster, and made friends with his daughter. When the monster tried to eat Yanga, the two girls ran away together, found a new home, married at the same time, and lived happily. Cruelty reached a more tragic result in the story of Nzambi and the Chimpanzee, in which an ape cradled a human child left by the river and talked to the mother, but the father came along, saw the animal, grew angry, and shot at her, killing the baby in the process.
Among the animal tales my favorite was the one where Tortoise, Boa, and Genet set out on a journey together, but because of all their special things (Genet always ran home to poop, Boa digested lunch for days, Tortoise could not climb over obstacles) the trip became a disaster.

Connections

I found yet another fire theft story in this book (I love those!); here the rebellious son of the sky god(ess, hard to tell) stole the spark with the help of Eagle and a dry vine.

I was reminded of Sindbad's Old Man of the Sea by the story where Nquion met the Forest Spirit while hunting in a forbidden place. The spirit clung to his back and did not let go; finally the hero was told by his grandmother in a dream how to get rid of the demon weighing down on his shoulders. I was reminded of Red Riding Hood by the tale of Guambo and the Demon Chief, where a girl, cursed by her sister, met various demons on her way home through the forest. She managed to avoid them by singing, but their chief swallowed her. She was rescued from the demon's stomach, by her parents.
I was reminded of a tale from Gabon by the story where Tortoise won a girl's hand (by cutting a tree down with the help of all his relatives). Leopard took the wife from him by force, but Tortoise got her back by hiding in the latrine and clinging to Leopard's testicles until he admitted defeat.
The trickster in residence is, once again, Tortoise.

Where to next?
São Tomé and Príncipe!

Monday, September 30, 2019

The Beauty in the Tale: Medieval Story Camp with the Világszép Foundation

Gather around, people, I'm going to tell you about my day job.
Two years ago I joined the Világszép Foundation as one of their resident storytellers. The Foundation was started in 2010 with the goal of aiding and supporting children in the state care system. Originally it organized summer camps, and then they added a volunteer storytelling program that sends tellers to group homes to tell bedtime stories to the children (we don't call these orphanages because most of the kids are not orphans, they just can't live with their family for various reasons). Since then, we have added several new programs, such as an inclusive kindergarten, inclusive after school programs, volunteer mentors, and career and crisis help. Still, the summer camps remain a large part of our work; we organize 6 or 7 of them every summer in the Story Center in Paloznak, a magical, peaceful lace by Lake Balaton. Storytelling is an integral part of every camp, but for kids aged 8-11 we specifically organize Story Camps around a theme. This year, our theme was Knights and Chivalry, and I would like to tell you more about it.

The camp was five beautiful, sunny days long. We started off each day with nursery rhymes and storytelling, and closed each one with a story and a lullaby (it might seem like nursery rhymes and lullabies are strange for this age group, but they create a connection that the kids rarely get to experience). The theme was all about chivalry, especially virtues: we used the stories to start discussions and activities about how real knights treat each other and the people around them. We had many adventures, built castles, made shields, and even held a tournament at the end of the week, after which we knighted all fourteen children.

Of course all of this would not have been a coherent whole without the storytelling. Story Camp is always especially fun for the tellers because we get to tell to the same audience regularly, opening and closing every day. The story collection for the camp took a lot of research, planning, and collecting to fit the age group, the virtues, the themes, the activities, and the Világszép philosophy - I had a lot of fun compiling it, and I was quite proud of the result. We ended up having nine "official" stories:
Prince Milinkuc (Hungarian folktale about a prince who has an incredible dream that he holds on to through many trials, and an evil ing who sends him various riddles to solve)
Dame Ragnell (A 15th century feminist classic, asking the big question: "What is it that all women want the most?")
Sistram and the Dragon (King Dietrich and his mentor drag a young knight out of a dragon's mouth - teamwork, people!)
The Kitchen Knight (Sir Gareth arrives to Camelot as a kitchen lad, but then goes on a quest with sassy Lady Lynet and proves his worth)
Astolfo travels to the Moon (A snippet from Orlando Furioso where an English knight takes a hippogriff to the Moon to find the lost common sense of his best friend)
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (I LOVE telling a classic to an audience that has not heard it before!)
The Bonny Lass of Anglesey (Scottish ballad about an epic dance-off between a brave lady and some English lords)
Culhwch and Olwen (Old Welsh superhero team-up with a brave prince and some famous knights from Arthur's court)
Damon and Pythias (A medieval retelling of an old Greek tale of Friendship where one friends offers to die in the place of another)

It is always great fun for a storyteller to tell to the same audience for days. Kids get used to the stories and the medieval world, and become familiar with some of the characters (Sir Gawain, obviously, became a fan favorite). Three of us shared the nine stories above, so the kids also got to hear different styles of storytelling. You could tell that they were very much engaged because they made comments, asked questions, and even corrected us when we said something wrong (sometimes to the point where I had to take a pause to laugh myself).

Beside the "official" storytelling times, I also adored spontaneous storytelling moments, of which we had quite a lot. We had afternoon nap time every day, but since this age group doesn't really nap (or stay quiet) anymore, I offered them that they could join me in the Story Room (yes, we have one) and lie down to listen to some tales. These were my favorite moments of the entire camp: I sat on a couch surrounded by children - some listening intently, some dozing off, and some lying quietly until it was their turn to open their eyes and tell me what I should tell next. They were peaceful, beautiful afternoons filled with stories. At one point the kids discovered that I like superheroes and I speak Marvel (we got into a conversation over lunch about whether or not Thor's hammer is made of vibranium) (it isn't) they came to the afternoon sessions to ask for "superhero stories." I defaulted to Thor and Loki since the interest was already there... and I ended up telling them my entire Norse mythology repertoire. They listened with rapt attention, asked questions, discussed details, compared myth to Marvel, and even acted out some fun moments of the stories (such as Thor pretending to be a bride). Once again, I discovered how pop culture can be a bridge to traditional stories, and I got to nerd out to my heart's extent.
Every once in a while a kid asked for a story when no one else was around. These moments also had a certain kind of magic, and I tried my best to select stories that would fit that very special one-person audience.

I told twenty-three stories in five days, and each of them was a very memorable, unique experience. Whether it was with the whole group, or with a few kids, or just one child, they all carried the story-magic of Paloznak and the Világszép (lit. "Beauty of the World") atmosphere. They were days filled with smiles, hugs, sunshine, swimming, fruit straight from the trees, and peace. It was the perfect place to be, and I would not trade it for any other gig or performance.
I'm already counting down the days for next summer!

Animal tale bonanza (Following folktales around the world 124. - Gabon)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!


Where Animals Talk
West African Folk Lore Tales
Robert H. Nassau
The Gorham Press, 1918.

These tales have been collected by the author at the end of the 19th century from local Bantu peoples along the coast of the Gulf of Guinea. The first chapter presents folktales from Mpongwe storytellers from Libreville, the second from Benga tellers from the island of Corisco, and the third from a Batanga teller who learned his tales from Bulu people from Cameroon. (In this post I will only talk about the sixteen stories of the first chapter, since Equatorial Guinea has a whole other book). The collector took notes during oral storytelling evenings, trying to keep as much of the vernacular as possible, but he also translated a few of the stories from other written sources. The book comes with a short introduction, and a long list of local animal names at the end. Each tale comes with a list of characters and settings (almost like a theater play), and comments from the collector.

Highlights

The book is full of animal and trickster tales, both familiar and new types. One of the resident tricksters, obviously, was Tortoise. In one story he fulfilled various clever tasks to win a wife, and though Leopard stole her for a moment, eventually Tortoise had the last laugh.
Next to Tortoise, the other popular trickster figure was Rat, who also was in the business of making a fool of stronger animals. Like Tortoise, he also stole a wife from Leopard, this time by changing his name to "Strangers", so that every time the bridal party was addressed, he claimed all the goods. In another story he stole back the meat that Leopard kept taking from him by force. Leopard eventually caught Rat with the classic "tar baby" trick, but when he came to see the thief, Rat started yelling "I got him! I got the thief! I'm holding him!", which is pretty genius. In the end, Rat managed to take what was his.
In a third similar story Leopard pretended to be dead, to catch animals who came to pay their respects. Gazelle did not fall for the trick, and with the help of Tortoise came up with some tests: He threw bees, ants, and pepper at the corpse, which immediately came alive...
One of my favorite stories in the book was about animals gathering for Crocodile's funeral, and trying to decide who the next of kin was. Birds claimed it was them, because they are also born from eggs, while beasts said they walk on four legs and so did Crocodile. The argument was never fully decided. (In another chapter there was a similar tale, but with Bat).
In another fin tale Manatee, Oyster, and Hog were having a contest over who had the most fat, and used it to decide where they will live. Manatee (the winner) moved into the rivers, Oyster into the edge of the salt water, and Hog, who messed up the contest, lost its horns forever. I was also thoroughly entertained by the story that explained why mosquitoes buzz in people's ears. Apparently, Ear promised some oil to Mosquito, but never delivered, and the insects have been bugging Ear ever since, asking for some ear wax.

Connections


There was yet another classic tug-o-war trickster tale: here Tortoise claimed to be as strong as Elephant and Hippo. Another classic, about two animals making trick feasts for each other, featured Tortoise and Monkey. The story about the suitors of Princess Gorilla reminded me of all the tortoise-and-hare tales: Here, suitors had to drink an entire barrel of rum. The contest was won by a family of tiny monkeys, who all pretended to be one monkey that sometimes ran away into the tall grass to pee.
Among the longer stories there was once again a variant for the mysterious and dangerous husband - here, a Leopard in disguise. The girl who married him was rescued by her faithful horse.

Where to next?
Equatorial Guinea!

Monday, September 23, 2019

Strange dilemmas and just decisions (Following folktales around the world 123. - Republic of Congo)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Notes on the Folk-lore of the Fjort
(French Congo)
R. E. Dennett
The Folk-lore Society, 1898.

It is tricky to find folktale collections from some parts of Africa, because political and cultural borders shifted around so much in the past two centuries. This book contains folktales from French Congo, mostly from the regions that are now the Republic of Congo (and a small part of Gabon). Since I could not locate any more recent folktale collections from the RC, I settled for this one, collected by a British merchant in the 19th century. He spent 17 years in the colonies, learned the local languages, and studied customs, folklore, and religion. The book was organized and edited by famous traveler Mary Kingsley, who also wrote an introduction and some additional studies for it. There is a separate chapter that introduces storytelling traditions, complete with examples of call-and-response stories and story-songs. At the end of the book we find some local songs, in the original language as well as English and Latin (translated with the help of Ms. Kingsley). The book was not always easy to follow, and parts of it are definitely dated, but I found a lot of cool stories on its pages!

Highlights

I appreciated the tale about the married couple that went on a journey and entrusted their son to a neighbor. The neighbor mistreated the boy, who fled into the forest, and was threatened by chimbindi (ghosts). Luckily, his parents got home, decided not to believe the neighbor's lies, and went looking for their son. They arrived just in time to chase the ghosts away with a gun loaded with chili pepper, and a basketful of pepper powder.
The story of How gazelle got married was thoroughly entertaining. The suitor had to find out the secret names of two girls in order to marry them. His dog spied on the girls and found out the names, but on the way home was always distracted by something and forgot them, so he had to keep returning. Eventually he made it to the gazelle and disclosed the names... but on the way to the girls' home they both forgot them again, so the names had to be retrieved one more time.
My favorite story from the collection was the surprisingly titled Ngomba's balloon. A girl was abandoned by her mean sisters, and kidnapped by a monster. While the monster was away, she worked together with the other prisoners to create a balloon, and they eventually flew safely home. When the monster followed them, the villagers helped chase it away. I also loved the story about The younger brother who knew more than the elder. They lived apart, but when the younger brother almost lost his wife as a result of his pride and a bad agreement with someone, the elder showed up just in time to trick the other party, and help save the wife.
Nzambi
I was very happy to find a new fire-theft tale in the collection, in which a team of animals - spider, tortoise, woodpecker, sand fly - stole fire from heaven together. Since spider was their leader, he would have won a wife for the effort, but the girl's father decided not to make her life miserable, so he gave everyone money instead. This was not the only wise decision in the book, either. A crafty woman overreached herself when she set a trap for someone in the hopes of demanding a payment for her stolen goods. However, the judges examining the case decided that her loss was intentional, and thus the decision was not made in favor of the trickster. Even Nzambi, the creator mother goddess was called in front of judges once, for stealing the world's first drum made by a small wagtail bird. She claimed that as creator, she had a right to everything, but the judges declared that she did not create drums, only creatures with free will who had a right to their own inventions. Therefore Nzambi had to pay for the drum, and also had to pay a fine for stealing it.
Flora and fauna featured prominently into the stories. In one "true story" a local man described a fight between a gorilla and a chimpanzee ( in which the latter lost). Another tale explained Why crocodile doesn't eat chicken - with the fact that chicken convinced him that they are related, since they are both born from eggs.

Connections

I once again encountered the tale about the wives who saved their husband together. Dreamer, Guide, and Raiser of the Dead brought the man back to life, and then demanded to know which one of them was the most valuable. The man chose the last one, and the men of the village agreed, but the women declared that he should have given each of his wives equal appreciation.
The story of the Twin Brothers is well known in Europe, and I have also seen it in Africa before. One brother sets out on an adventure and dies, but the other saves him. In this version there was an intriguing house full of mirrors that all showed different places (including the forbidden village where the first brother perished). Sadly, after the rescue, the two brothers had an argument and they killed each other.
Among the local beliefs there were mentions of people who could shapeshift into crocodiles or leopards - the crocodile-people even had their own village on a river island.
A nameless trickster started a fight between two friends by walking between them in a coat that was half red and half blue. I knew this story with the Yoruba trickster Eshu. Another trickster tale featured Rabbit secretly eating up the food he stored with Antelope - for which Antelope captured with with the use of the classic "tar baby" trick.

Where to next?
Gabon!

Monday, September 16, 2019

Genets and genesis (Following folktales around the world 122. - Democratic Republic of Congo)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!


Tortoise and Crocodile
and other folktales from the Komo People of the Democratic Republic of Congo
Barbara Thomas
Amazon Kindle Services, 2011.

The twenty tales in this book were collected from the Komo people in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The collection is intended as a children's book, but it does contain stories that might be "sensitive" for Western readers. These have been marked with parental guidance warnings. The book notes the names of the original storytellers, but doesn't assign them to the tales, and the introduction is mostly just a foreword about sensitive content.

Highlights

I was fascinated by the tale of Motondo, the Magic Carpet, in which sisters went fishing and wanted to leave their little brother behind. He followed anyway, and when at night Father Spider stole the eyes of the girls (repeatedly), he stole them back. Eventually he warned his sisters of danger, and they wove a magic carpet and flew away to safety. The same moral (don't leave at home someone who wants to go with you) showed up in some of the Ashanti folktales in Ghana as well.
I was delighted to find a tale featuring one of my favorite feline creatures, the genet. The story was fairy simple; Rooster tricked Genet, and Genet died as a result, so his children have been revenge-hunting poultry ever since. The tale of Ingee's betrothal was one of the "parental warning" tales - a man heading out to find a wife took a dump where he was not supposed to, and his feces kept rolling after him everywhere as an ever-present reminder of shame. Needless to say, he did not get a wife.
Tortoise, the resident trickster, appeared as a fairly questionable character in many of the stories. In Tortoise and his friends, he invited animals along on a journey, then tricked them out of their food and weapons, framed them for theft, and had them killed. He did so with Endo, the red antelope (a symbol for death), and many others, until Mboko, the white antelope turned the tricks against him. In another tale Tortoise pretended to be a midwife for Crocodile's wife, and ate up all her eggs - that's why crocodiles have been hunting tortoises ever since.

Connections

I was reminded of Adam and Eve by the story of Abha-Betombetombe, Father of the Forest, where he warned fisherwomen not to eat from his sacred plantains. Of course they did, so he cursed them with monthly bleeding. After last week I once again encountered the story about why hens scratch the ground, looking for tasty morsels. The tale of Kaunga and Tombai was an all-devouring type folktale where a monster ate up everything and everyone, until a wild man named Kaunga had himself swallowed and rescued everyone by cutting the monster open from the inside, and staring a new world.
As I said before, the local trickster is Tortoise. I was reminded of Anansi and his moss-covered rock by the tale where Tortoise tricked animals into climbing a tree and being eaten by Leopard, until Mboko, the white antelope, once again came to the rescue. There was also another trickster figure, He-Spider, who tried to copy elephants and got hurt in the process, as tricksters sometimes do.



Where to next?
The Republic of Congo!